Critics’ Picks


Mounira Al Solh

The Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue
February 8–April 29

It is a tradition in the Greek Dodecanese for nuptial beds to be covered by a sperveri, a bed-tent embroidered by female members of a bride’s family. Traditionally made from tapered pieces of cloth embellished with colored silk, they form part of a woman’s dowry. Following the wedding, they are disassembled and used to create a variety of domestic textiles and serve as a constant reminder of home. Sperveri, 2017, embroidered by the Lebanese Dutch artist Mounira Al Solh, is the centerpiece of her solo exhibition “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous,” a trenchant meditation on the things we carry with us.

Sperveri is surrounded by embroideries, which, like the drawings in an adjacent gallery, contain portraits and personal accounts of refugees and displaced persons from across the Middle East. Al Solh began the drawings, which belong to the ongoing titular series, in 2012 to collect the testimonies and likenesses of individuals in exile. Many of these works were executed on yellow legal pads as an emphatic reminder of the bureaucratic and legal limbo in which many of the sitters find themselves. Like the two hundred and sixty drawings on display, the embroideries and sperveri—the former from a series titled “My speciality was to make a peasants’ haircut, but they obliged me work till midnight often,” 2015–17—record Al Solh’s encounters with individuals around the globe. Of the drawings here, thirty are the result of encounters with members of the Syrian refugee community in Chicago.

Collectively, the testimonies create a poignant portrait of a region in a state of seemingly never-ending crisis. It is precisely in the face of this crisis that the project’s title makes so much paradoxical sense: Based on a comment made by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, it asserts that humanity, all this trauma and catastrophe notwithstanding, is a matter of guarding our right to be frivolous at all times. For what is art, in these times of crisis and trauma, but the most vital of frivolities?